February 1

Where #Maslow and students intersect

A couple of days ago, I was ensconced in my home in the Chicago suburbs, where overnight the temperature with windchill dropped to nearly -50℉ (-45℃). I am extremely blessed, because my home was warm. Power stayed on. No pipes froze. I had plenty of food to eat. The internet was out, but I have a smartphone (and a tablet!), so was easily able to stay “connected.”

With this abundance of resources, and essentially a forced “retreat” in my home, I should have been efficiently working away, knocking things off my “To Do” list. Instead, I was hanging out on social media, sharing information and photos of this unusual weather event and how it had impacted me. Commiserating with others in similar straits.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the importance of trying to understand our students’ out-of-school environments. If I, a mature adult with plenty of resources, had a hard time focusing during an unusual and uncomfortable event, I wonder what it is like for a child who is often hungry? Or who lives in fear of harm from a caregiver? Or who is required to “look out” for another family member? Or who has no heat in their home? The list of “or who” could go on for some time.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Wikimedia Commons shared under a CC-BY-SA Creative Commons license.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, generally accepted as a sound model, states that one can only achieve the next tier of the hierarchy once all the needs in lower tiers are met. Physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) are the lowest level. Feeding America reports that at the end of 2017, there were 13 million American children (one in six) living with food insecurity. Two of the consequences, as identified by the World Hunger Education Service, are “impaired physical and cognitive development.”

Maslow’s second tier consists of safety needs (protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc). Child Trends reports that in the United States in 2016 there were approximately 672,000 maltreated children, a rate of 9.1 per 1,000. “Maltreated” refers to neglect and abuse. If we include other factors, the numbers are much higher. Kids Count reports that 13% of American children live in communities with poverty rates of 30% and above. Among other patterns in high-poverty neighborhoods are higher rates of crime and violence, so even when children living in these areas have a safe home environment they may feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and at school.

I have only (briefly) discussed the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Levels three and four include love, belonging and esteem. Cognitive need only occurs at level five of the hierarchy. In other words, unless our students have their needs consistently met in those first four tiers, they are unable to care about knowledge and understanding. We have millions of children in the United States that are in this situation.

Our challenge is to take actions that ensure all students climb that hierarchy not only to tier five, but to the top. This Edutopia article provides some specific ways we can work towards that ideal.

 

May 11

Landscapes

Recently, we initiated a landscaping project at our house. It consisted of adding some hardscape, a few new plants, and rearranging some existing plants. As I observed the process in motion, it spoke to me as an exemplar of what we should implement in our classrooms and schools.

When the owner/operator of the landscaping company, Mr. M,  first came to assess the work we wanted done, he asked many questions. We hammered out a rough idea of what we wanted, both hard and soft scape. He showed us samples of different stones, and we chose one. This is similar to the design process of a good inquiry- design- or project-based undertaking. I appreciate both the Stanford d.school and IDEO methodologies regarding design thinking. Although the vernacular varies somewhat between the various definitions, the underlying principles remain constant.

Stone Wall

Stone wall by David R Tribble is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Throughout the implementation process, Mr. M confirmed details with me such as the pattern the stones were to be set in. He adjusted his plan accordingly. This exemplifies the iterative process of design thinking, wherein one develops a prototype or first draft, then refines it, often multiple times, based on testing and feedback.

When Mr. M presented a written quote for the work to be done, we were prepared to negotiate with him, to find ways to reduce the price or increase the services rendered, or both. However, the quote was so reasonable and comprehensive, we found it unnecessary to negotiate. This conveyed to me his authenticity. Mr. M portrayed who he is – a competent landscaper who is proud of his work and provides his services at a fair price.

Authenticity is a characteristic gaining traction in many arenas, including education. As Sam Seidel phrases it, we need to  “keep it real.” In order for students to fully engage with a topic, they need to connect with it in some way. Talking about dry, dusty dates from the past is not real, nor is an out-of-context math formula. However, comparing Andrew Jackson with Donald Trump leads to student connection. Similarly, building a greenhouse makes those math formulas very real.

York U Greenhouse

York U Greenhouse by Raysonho is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Mr. M also portrayed his identity through his branding. Each of the numerous trucks that came and went had identical signage on their sides. The signs included the company name, a list of services, and contact information. What is our “brand,” our culture? BIE’s John Larmer, in this article cites a definition of culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” The more clarity we have in our definition, and the more closely we align our practices with the definition, the more our culture flourishes.

The interactions of the landscaping team were also telling of the climate in which they work. I could not understand most of the words of their conversations, but could nonetheless interpret the temperament of the group:

  1. The majority of the time, Mr. M was present and worked alongside his men. Not a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” In this Edutopia article about this methodological shift, Dan Jones states “[w]hen teachers move from the front of the room to working beside students, students begin to take a deeper ownership of the learning process and produce a meaningful connection with the material.”
  2. The men laughed, joked, and chatted with good humor. I never heard a voice raised in anger or impatience. The group was varied in age, and probably in experience, but they functioned as a collaborative team. As Aaron Brengard states in this BIE article, “[c]ollaboration is an essential part of our culture… it raises up the quality of all work.” He further discusses the importance of collaboration not only within student teams, but among the adults in schools, and how “[w]e believe that working together makes us better and without one another we will not reach the level of work that brings us closer to exceeding our expectations.”
  3. Each person seemed to know the tasks they were to complete, and tackled them with industry and enthusiasm. When there was a question, it was answered quickly, with a straightforward response. Elena Aguilar, in this post about effective teams, includes two traits that I observed among the landscaping crew: “[a] good team knows why it exists” and “[m]embers of a good team trust each other.”
  4. They took breaks. For lunch, and a few other times in the day. As they sat, they continued to chat among themselves. The parallel I draw in PBL practice is the time we spend in reflection. It is an opportunity to review what went well, what went poorly, how did I/we grow, what is the next goal. In this Edutopia article, James Kobialka offers some great ideas for effective reflection.

It seems apropos that I found parallels between a landscaping project and school settings. We all function within a landscape of some type. I wish all of us a lush, colorful, growing garden as our habitat.

Lush garden

Lush garden by Lynn Greyling is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

July 5

Never Judge

Never judge. I was recently talking to a friend whose family is struggling financially. Her husband was laid off from his job, and is having difficulty finding another one that combines his skills and interests. This friend is (by choice) not working, so I asked her why she doesn’t look for a job, to help ends meet. The answer she gave me was not at all what I expected.

She explained that at a job she had a few years ago, she felt undervalued. That experience dealt a long-term blow to her confidence. She often thinks of seeking out a job, but then backs away, because of her lack of confidence. She rattled off a long list of skills and experience she has, in a variety of work environments. While she understands on a logical level that she is “marketable,” the emotional impact of one experience in a negative work environment has paralyzed her.

This woman is in middle life. She raised a daughter as a single mother, while holding down a full-time job. Not only did she provide for her daughter materially, she instilled a positive attitude and confidence. That daughter is a grown woman who has a successful career and family life of her own, so the positive outcomes of my friend’s parenting are apparent. She has every right to feel accomplished. But, she doesn’t.

Given that the unkind or thoughtless words and actions of a manager have created this handicap in a mature adult’s life, just imagine what we  have the power to do in the lives of the children we work with. Every time we speak harshly, or diminish, or demean, we are creating negative effects that last well beyond the immediate situation.

Similarly, when we have students who have an attitude, or are trouble-makers, or any other negative adjective we can assign, we need to never judge. What has their life experience been to-date? How many times have other adults told them they are incapable, or worthless, or similar? Our job, as educators, is to develop all students’ abilities, regardless of the baggage they have arrived with.

We need to provide them with opportunities to grow. Regardless of how small and wilted they are when they arrive, we need to send them on to their next experience taller, straighter, and more vigorous. What are some ways we can do this?

Within the #PBL model, there are ample opportunities to demonstrate to students that we value them and their contributions.  The first, and perhaps most important aspect, is authenticity. As Sam Seidel says, “keep it real.” When we ask students  to investigate driving questions they can relate to, they become more engaged. At the same time, we send the message that we believe in their ability to find solutions to complex, messy, open-ended problems. Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences has specific ideas on how to develop projects that have real-world connections that are meaningful to students.

To underscore our confidence in students’ abilities, we need to offer “voice and choice,” giving the students a significant say in the kinds of products they will develop; in other words, the method they will use to demonstrate their understanding . This is a grand, and liberating, departure from the assignment of yore, “write a 500-word essay,” or “on a tri-fold board…”. This flexibility in product choice often results in students developing 21st-Century media and technology skills, such as website design, or video editing, and most certainly deeper research skills.

Project development is an iterative process. This is true in PBL, and equally true in the work world. No project is complete from A-Z without some revisions along the way. This is often challenging for students (and educators) to accept. In traditional education, there are “rights” and “wrongs,” and making a mistake is a negative. PBL assumes that the first iteration will have flaws, and challenges students to improve their work, often multiple times. Peer and teacher (facilitator) assessments identify what a student has done well, and what areas of his/her work could be improved. My hero in this area remains Ron Berger, the master facilitator who inspires students to create “beautiful work.”

Many students arrive at a point during their education where they have a fixed mindset, wherein they “believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.”  As students work through the iterative process of PBL, however, they begin to develop a growth mindset, where they “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.”

As a final reinforcement to students about the meaningfulness of their work, we need to seek a public audience. This audience serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, many community members have a keen interest in fostering interest in the work they do. They are happy to act as consultants during the project development process. Secondly, community experts are enthused about attending a presentation of the work students have done, and often have insightful questions and feedback that further strengthen the point that students and their work are valuable.

The next time you have a “problem” student, never judge. Instead, use PBL to nurture that wilted plant into a strong, robust one that is prepared for the next challenge.

 

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